"Are you certain?” Valorum asked solemnly.
The physician shrugged with his left shoulder. “Chancellor Valorum, the only thing that I am certain of is that there is a mass in your lung. To diagnose it further, I will need more information…more tests.” He lightly patted the man’s shoulder. “I know that news may sound ominous, but at this moment, we really don’t know what this is. It could be something simple, something we can take care of easily.”
Finis snorted. “That’s easy for you to say.” He looked away, running his eyes over the light blue walls and landscape images intended to brighten up the room. And the patient’s attitude? Well, it doesn’t work so well.
The portly doctor with thinning hair formed a small cynical smile. “Yes, it is. However, it’s also true. I’ve had many patients sitting in your same place, and it did turn out to be…”
“Yeah, yeah…heard it all before.” Valorum stood from the exam table and reached for his tunic from the clothes tree in the corner of the small exam room. “Don’t forget, Doctor Monary, I’m a master at dressing up words so they sound better than they really are.” He paused and added quietly, “This is what happens when you follow your doctor’s advice and have a regular checkup.” Then he thought to ask. “Are you finished with me?” he asked evenly.
“For now. I will schedule the tests I mentioned and my receptionist…”
“Will call me,” Valorum finished for him. Then he sighed and his shoulders sagged with the weight he felt; not just the weight of this uncertain news, but the weight of the position that he held…and the weight of breaking this news to his family. “Look, I’m sorry. I…”
But the man broke in with a nod and a light slap to Valorum’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Finis.” It seemed the right time to drop the formality, and their long acquaintanceship made it fitting as well. “I can’t say I understand from your point of view, but I have been on this side of it many times. I do understand such news is upsetting, and your reaction is normal.” Monary smiled very slightly. “You make the transition from denial to anger quickly.” He paused thoughtfully. “Getting it out is probably better for you in particular. You’ll eat yourself up inside if you don’t get it out. Do you need to talk to someone?”
Valorum’s right eye brow fell at that, making a grey slash above his blue eye, and the doctor knew he’d said the wrong thing. He wished he could take it back, but now he was likely in for another tongue lashing. Part of knowing Finis Valorum, he told himself, but he could take it. Finis was unique and had unique ways of dealing with most things. The supreme chancellor trusted him to be personal physician, and that trust had a dignifying way of compensating for some of his patient’s outbursts.
“You’ve known me for how many years?”
Poul Monary saw his chance to, perhaps, defuse the situation. “Since you were a junior senator and I was new to private practice.” He smiled a bit. “Guess I’m still learning, eh?”
The frank openness disarmed Valorum. At last a smile broke over his somber face and he laughed. “I guess we are both still learning.” He sighed. “I know what you’re thinking, what you want to say. It would be better to talk to someone, if for no other reason, to get it off my chest. But, Doc, I’ve learned, as chancellor, that some things you can’t tell anyone, no matter how much you may feel like you want to or need to.” He nodded slightly. “I can handle it. I’m okay.”
“I know that, Finis. And I know you deal with difficulties every day in your job.” The man paused. “But this is different, and everyone has a limit, even you. I know I can’t convince you to talk to a counselor. If you find that you do need to down load, call me. You know you can trust me to keep quiet…and please don’t wait until you’ve made yourself sick with worry, okay? We don’t need something that’s simple to prevent thrusting into the middle of this, right?” Another pause and he hurried to add. “And before you tell me, which you would before you left, not a word to Mei. I won’t say anything. It’s up to you to tell her.”
Valorum sighed and his shoulders seemed to droop even further. “Yeah,” he said wearily. “I’ve got to figure out how to handle that.”
Monary nodded. “How about, ‘Mei, I have some news for you, but it’s very preliminary and no conclusions can be drawn right now’.”
Finis was making final adjustments to his jacket before walking out, straightening it and brushing off a bit of lint. No matter how upset a chancellor was, he couldn’t let a hint of it show. Friends and foes would try to make the most of the least hint of anything amiss. He squared his shoulders and reached inside for the strength that he’d built over the years. Once more into the breach, Finis. You’ve made it through things as bad or worse.
“Thanks, Doc. Good words…but I’d like to chew them over before I use them.” Now he took a turn at patting the doctor’s shoulder. “I know you’re good. I know you’re doing what you can. I know you’ll do what needs to be done and as soon as you can. You always have. You’ll tell me I don’t need to apologize, but I feel the need. I’m sorry, Poul. I’ve never been a good patient.”
The doctor nodded. “You’re just a typical person, with hopes and worries and expectations. Try not to worry, Finis. But I have to ask you one more thing before you go. You always put me off on answering this. Now I need a straightforward answer.” He stared hard at his patient.
Finis looked down, a bit abashed. “I know what you’re going to ask. I know I’ve been shifty about answering…but I haven’t had a smoke in nearly a year now. I haven’t really smoked steadily in years. I do slip back into it for a few days now and then…” he trailed off.
And Monary wasn’t going to scold him at a time like this; he thought the point was made. He simply needed the information. “Okay. And I’m sure it goes without saying…” He didn’t finish purposely.
“Wild banthas couldn’t drag me to it right now.” Valorum turned to go but the doctor grabbed his sleeve.
“We aren’t quite finished yet. I will call you to let you know when I have scheduled the next test.” He paused as his eyes bored into his patient. “Okay?”
The chancellor felt a bit sheepish. Of course such details had to be settled before he left, no matter how annoyed he was with the situation. “Yes, okay.” But then he reclaimed the upper hand, and satisfied his desire for swiftness in resolving this. He pointed a finger at Monary and said, but not severely, “As soon as possible…okay?”
By the time that Finis’ driver had delivered him to the door leading to his penthouse, the chancellor had decided that he wasn’t going to tell Mei anything about this. At least not at the moment. If, in the slim case, to his way of thinking, it wasn’t anything serious then he would have worried her for no reason. And if this turned out to be the worst possible news, he wanted to delay it as long as possible since the Winter Festival holiday was coming up quickly. He had formed an image in his head of his family sitting glumly around the living room on Festival day, worrying and trying to cheer each other, and probably thinking this was the last holiday with him. That was too stressing and depressing. He shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to do that to them. Let them have their happiness for as long as they can. Galaxy knows they’ve had their share of misery because I decided I wanted to be chancellor. If bad news is coming, let it come later. I hope it doesn’t come soon. He stopped walking just before he reached the door of the penthouse. I don’t know when the other tests will be scheduled or when the results will come back. It’s only a couple of weeks until the holiday. What if… Maybe I could ask Poul to put the tests off until after the holiday. No, he’ll tell me that I should have all this done sooner…which is right. I know that. That means the news could come on the day before Festival day.
His thoughts were interrupted by sounds coming from his home. Laughter and talk. Dellan had arrived home today on leave. He hadn’t had a holiday with his parents in several years now, and his sector of the galaxy was remarkably quiet. Dellan had jumped at the chance when his CO had suggested it. Valorum was anxious to see his son, excited at his arrival. At least he had been excited earlier today when Mei told him Dellan had arrived.
Okay, Finis. How good an actor are you? You do it with politicians regularly. Can you feign your family? Lie to them?
That was staggering to him and he had to get moving right away before he had too much time to think about it. He placed his palm against the reader next to the door, pushing all thoughts out of his mind and thinking only about how very glad he would be to see his family. The door quietly swished open and he pushed in. The man who tended the door was ready to take the chancellor’s jacket and briefcase, speaking a short word of greeting. And Finis was in the living room.
“Daddy!” Tillia stood quickly from the ottoman next to Dellan’s chair. Then she calmed herself, reminding herself she was a young lady now, and she had to be better behaved so that Dellan could see how much she had matured. She walked to her father and embraced him. “I’m so glad you’re here. We’ve been waiting.” She couldn’t entirely contain herself though and the words tumbled out in a swell. “You are late,” she lightly scolded.
He hugged her tightly, fighting to keep his mind clear of particular thoughts, and their related emotions. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “Unexpected hold up.”
As soon as Tillia stepped back, Dellan moved in and grabbed his father in a snug embrace. “Dad…” He said nothing more, not wanting his voice to break. And that obvious pause broke Finis’ reserve. “So glad to see you,” he croaked out as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Mei moved in to wrap one arm around her husband and one around her son. She wasn’t afraid to let her feelings show. Tillia moved into the group hug, and the group stayed packed a moment. It was Finis who didn’t want to break it up, but mostly because he didn’t want his face to be seen. He needed a moment longer to regain himself. They stood in the middle of the large room, from which some furniture had been removed for their holiday tree. It was silent except for the ventilation system and their sobs.
When the group did break up, Mei caught sight of Finis. There was something more there in his greyed down blue eyes than the joy of seeing his son. What terrible news did he bring home with him? What trouble has broken loose in the senate, or in the Republic, that has him so upset? But she would get that from him later before bedtime. No reason to bring it up now and break up the joy of the reunion.
Valorum swiped at his eyes as he stepped back. “You look good, Dellan…better than the last time I saw you. You don’t look like a skeleton now. If it didn’t look so much like favoritism, I’d give your CO a big bonus for getting you home.”
Dellan didn’t notice anything different about his father, but his own tears blurred his vision. “This is one time I’d agree with you. Getting home almost feels like a promotion. You look great too, Dad.”
Only on the outside. I’m glad you don’t have x-ray vision. “I’m just glad that crazy squadron hasn’t killed you. Hey, have a seat, everyone. I’ll be back in a moment. Pit stop.” And he hurried out.
Nothing wrong with having an emotional outburst at seeing his son, but too much would be very noticeable. Finis needed a moment to get his wits back together and wash his face. How long can you keep the farce up? Any other time…no problem, but the timing…
“Finis, you’ve hardly touched your meal,” Mei said quietly. To her that meant he was either sick, or sick with worry. Those were the only situations that caused Finis to ignore his food.
“I’m just so happy to see Dellan, and we’ve had so much to talk about,” he responded easily. Part of that was truth. He hadn’t lied. But was withholding information the same?
“Please don’t let me keep you from eating,” Dellan said around a mouthful. “I’ve found it easy to eat and talk,” he smirked. “Great,” he enthused as he pointed to the plate. He shoveled another mouthful in. “Still same cook?”
Mei shook a finger at him and lightly reminded him about talking with his mouthful. The family dining room was filled now, even though only one more person had been added. Dellan brought more than a body to the table. His personality, stories, and joy at being home seemed to bring layers of spirit to the medium sized room. The servers enjoyed his new company also because he was gracious to them for everything and every item they provided. Not that the Valorums weren’t kind to their staff, but Dellan’s enthusiasm was that boundless.
“Are you going shopping tomorrow, like you said?” Tillia broke in. She had cleared her dish, mostly because the adult conversation had left her on the sidelines, much to her chagrin. She could talk about most issues at their level, if they’d only give her a chance. She had learned much growing up in the Valorum family, except for the art of courteously breaking into a conversation, as politicians so deftly do. When she attempted, it still seemed too abrupt, as now. Except this time she didn’t care. She wanted into the conversation, even if it meant converting back to her little girl ways. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that she hadn’t seen Dellan in the same amount of time as them.
“Yes.” Dellan gave her his full attention, sensing what she was about. “I am. I’ve come home for the holiday with empty hands. I’ve got to buy presents.”
“No,” Mei disagreed. “That’s not necessary. You’ve brought us you, that’s all we need. It’s all too commercial anyway.”
Dellan’s blue eyes blazed with happiness. “Thanks, Mom, but you can’t stop me. I know I don’t need to, but I want to. I’m just so glad to be home. Let me show my joy in my own way.”
She put up her hands and smiled. “Far be it from me to stand in the way of your joy.”
“Can I go along?” Tillia burst out.
“Of course,” Dellan responded.
“Of course not,” Mei overruled. “You have school tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry, Til. I’ll wait until you get home.”
Finis chuckled. It was all so predictable, and he was enjoying it so much. That only reminded him of what he had to lose, if things turned out badly. That’s as bluntly as he’d let himself put it. And he didn’t want to lose it. “I’ll come along too.”
Everyone turned to look at him in amazement. Their eyes were wide and mouths hung open. He glanced around the room at the statues his family had become at his announcement.
“Am I not welcome?” he asked quietly.
“Of course you are, Dad,” Dellan responded quickly. “I just was trying to picture the supreme chancellor going on a casual shopping trip.” He stared away to the light green wall, not seeing the wall or the abstract painting which hung there, done by a famous Coruscant artist, but which Finis had pronounced “produced by drunken Wookies”. Instead, in his mind’s eye, Dellan saw the bodyguards trying to clear a path down the main aisle of the local department store while his father strolled along looked at kitschy gifts for his family.
“Oh, well that’s not a problem. I do have to go out at times.” He held out a hand, palm up. “I can’t stand the bubble I’m forced to live in.” His eyes gleamed with humorous evil as he said, “I take great joy in popping it. My men are used to it,” he shrugged.
“Remind me never to volunteer to pull guard duty for you!”
“Too late. You’re an active soldier, by default, you are on guard.”
That only broadened Dellan’s smile.
“Let’s adjourn to the living room. We’ve got a lot of living to catch up on.”
“Lots of holo vids to show you,” Tillia added sarcastically while rolling her eyes. “Every time something insignificant happens…like a new dress, they pull out the camera. Were they like this with you?” She waited for Dellan to come alongside her before she headed to the living room.
“You mean they’ve never shown you all the old vids of us?”
“What?” she stopped suddenly, eyes wide.
Finis laughed as he draped his arm around his dear wife. He had to laugh or he thought he might break into tears. No matter how much he repeated Dr. Monary’s words, that he didn’t know for certain about this, he found the routine useless. How many times had he heard of someone getting bad news from such a finding? Many more times than he’d heard of good news coming instead.
“What’s the matter,” Mei whispered to him.
And that almost undid him again. “Nothing. I’m just so happy. We are going to have our family together on a holiday for the first time in…years.”
“Something’s wrong,” she insisted. “I know you, Finis Valorum.”
“Just one of those days,” he tried to push it away, hoping she would let it go. And he didn’t give her the chance to respond. Valorum put an arm around her and began dancing as they entered the living room, loudly humming one of their favorite songs. He twirled her around behind the sofa, past a couple of chairs and then between their children.
“Oh no,” Tillia groaned.
“What?” Dellan responded. “Don’t you like to know that they love each other?”
“You don’t have to be here all the time with them.”
“I used to.”
Mei was propped up in the great bed reading, or trying to. She was tired and drowsy, but she longed to talk to Finis also and was fighting to stay awake. He was taking much longer than usual in the shower. He must simply need the warm water to help him unwind, she told herself. The woman put the viewer aside and snuggled deeper under the fleecy blankets, pulling them up to her chin. Bad move, Mei. If you get too comfortable, you will go to sleep.
Just when her heavy eyelids were about to close completely, Finis stepped into the room, clothed in his favorite blue pajamas. They were thin at the knees and elbows, but he refused to part with them, no matter how many more blue pajamas she bought for him. They are my favorites, he always responded.
“I thought for certain you’d be asleep,” he said playfully. I was hoping so.
“Almost,” she yawned. “I’m glad for Dellan to be here…but I missed you.” She held out her arms to him.
He smiled and it faded quickly. Valorum stretched long and loud, covering his mouth with a hand to try to stifle the invented sound. “I hope you won’t take it personally if I cut our time short. I love being with you…but I’m so very tired.” He got into bed next to her and gave her a quick peck, settling under the blankets.
Initially Mei felt hurt, and then she returned to the thought that had been nagging at her all night.
“What’s wrong? Don’t tell me that it’s nothing,” she added quickly. “Something is bothering you. You are behaving oddly, even for you. Everything you do seems to be a transparent attempt to cover up.”
Finis sighed. This was exactly what he dreaded the most, time alone with Mei. If he couldn’t come up with something that would stem her inquiries, then she would be able to dig the truth out. And maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. No, it would be bad. She would worry and there’s no point in making her worry unless she knows the full reason for it. And not right now, with all the holiday preparations going on. That is stressful enough on its own. I really am doing her a favor, even if she wouldn’t see it that way.
He opened his eyes, but didn’t sit up, a clear sign that he wasn’t going to make this long. “Maybe I am behaving oddly. Maybe it seems like something is wrong.” He paused and realized he’d have to hurry on or she would be immediately suspicious. It was just so hard to lie to her. Lie or tell the truth but say something. “But it’s just the same old stuff that I bring home many nights.” He started to add “honestly” but couldn’t bring himself to. He’d tried to be as straightforward as possible, and not let his mind wander enough to make him act “oddly” as she’d put it.
Mei studied him a long moment, examining those steely blue eyes and the turn of every line in his face of character. It did seem sometimes as if she could see straight into his soul, and he hoped this wasn’t one of those times. But the amount of time she spent studying him was an indication of how intensely she was judging the whole of him. He lay still, hardly even daring to breath, certain the next movement he made would break down his wall.
After a long couple of minutes, Mei quietly said, “All right. If you say so.” She leaned down for a kiss. This time he gave her more than a peck, pulling her close, feeling her warmth and softness. Suddenly he felt himself a fool. He was ignoring her when he wasn’t certain of his future. He pulled her even closer.
“He’s where?” Jashar said with great surprise. “Shopping? The supreme chancellor is closing down half the senate district so that he can go shopping?” His face dissolved into a merry smile, making his blue eyes twinkle. So much like Finis.
Mei returned the smile. “He was so very glad to see Dellan. We all were. It’s been a long time…and the last time he was home…” She trailed off, not truly wanting to think of Dellan’s last time on Coruscant, fresh from rescue as a prisoner of war, with all the scars that left, physical and psychological.
Jashar closed the couple of steps between his mother and him, taking her hands in his. That episode and the missteps Dellan took in his recover had left scars on all the family. He longed to comfort but was uncertain what to say. “But that’s in the past and he has made a great recovery.”
“Yes,” she agreed, the smile returned, making her brown eyes glitter. “And you’re home too.”
Jashar had requested posting off Coruscant to deal with his own ghosts from being held prisoner by a village leader who had used him as beast of burden and for entertainment, a horrifying experience. Certainly it wasn’t as lengthy and so not as grave as Dellan’s experience. That was part of the difficulty for Jashar. His brother kept trying to offer unwanted help from his own experiences. Jashar appreciated his brother’s concern, but found it more difficult to accept his attitude of seeming to know all about recovery. The only way that Jashar could move forward was to attempt it away from his family’s watching eyes.
“Yeah,” he waved a hand, trying to downplay it. “But I wasn’t so far away and not for so long.” Then he changed the subject quickly. “And Saia. When is she arriving?”
“Her flight doesn’t get here until day after tomorrow, around midday.” She paused, studying her son. “Is something wrong, Jashar?”
He looked away. “Not really. I was just thinking that the last time we were all together on a holiday…Saia was still married.”
“And that also made you think of Cesa.”
He was going to head this off quickly. “Mom, Cesa and I have talked. We realize that this is probably not the best time for us to commit to anything. We are comfortable with our decision and we are still friends. Really.”
“All right.” She let go of the subject, recognizing Jashar’s attempt to push it away. This holiday could also be very touchy if she didn’t stay away from particular events. That was difficult because her family had been through so very many hurtful events. However, she couldn’t dwell there right now. She knew she should enjoy the holiday, not dwell in the past. She suddenly cheered and changed the subject. “They said they would be home in time for supper. Now let’s see how close they make it,” she said with a gleam in her eye. “Knowing those three, especially with Finis being the ringleader, I’ll bet they’ll be…at least a couple of hours late.”
“Aren’t you being a bit optimistic?” Jashar grinned. He rubbed a hand over his stomach. “A couple of hours? In that case, I think I might have a bit of a snack…”
Jashar and Mei were talking in the living room. Companionable conversation with companionable silence at intervals, and they were comfortable with it. They had become comfortable with that sort of relationship. Every sentence didn’t have to be about the most significant thing. It was fine to talk of mundane things without being boring or becoming bored. That showed true interest in each other. Both had their feet up and were draped over the chairs they occupied, relaxed and at peace.
Mei was at peace now. She had been more agitated earlier. Even though she expected her family home late, they were now much later than she had guessed. A quick call to Finis’ driver reassured her, and reminded him to report in at appropriate intervals so that she wouldn’t be frantic. The comm unit was at hand, and now she was relaxed.
Their quiet was shattered, falling away like shards of glass from a pane. Laughter and raucous talk filled the apartment. Mei smiled at Jashar and rose to meet the oncoming tide. She never made it to the entry before she was overwhelmed by the inrushing crowd. At least it seemed a crowd. It was loud enough for a crowd, and laden enough.
“What?” she asked in surprise, never finishing the thought.
Tillia was carrying a single package, but large enough to fill her arms. Dellan was next, a full bag in one hand and parcel in the other. Finis’ gleaming blue eyes were just visible over the top of the stack he was carrying. When Mei thought that was all, Finis’ driver and a servant followed with more wrapped packages. They used one of the chairs to deposit their cargo and discreetly withdrew.
Jashar had never left his perch. He watched in amusement, not entirely surprised. Generosity abounded in the Valorum family. He wasn’t certain which was more entertaining, the stunned look on his mother’s face or the look of boyish excitement on his father’s face. Jashar decided to hold his position for the moment, despite his joy at seeing his brother and father. He wasn’t going to interrupt this for anything.
“Finis…” the lovely woman said in breathless wonder. “What…”
He dumped his load atop the pile in the chair and took Mei in his arms, twirling her around the living room as he lustily belted out a song that tiptoed on the edge of bawdiness. The wife was even more astonished, but also concerned what her young daughter might hear, not to mention the show that Finis was presenting for their children. Her mind was flooded with questions of what to obstruct first, until she took the opportunity to look into her husband’s face. It had been some time since Finis had looked so delighted. When had she last seen such abandon? It felt a lifetime ago. He seemed like the cocky young officer that she had fallen in love with so many years ago. His eyes gleamed a blue light that was filled with love as well as elation. All of that made her forget everything else and she pulled closer to him, closing her eyes and trying to feel the delight that flooded him, wondering at its source.
Suddenly Finis spotted Jashar, relaxed in a big chair, arm over the leg and grinning as smugly as he himself, eyes as blue and shiny. He stopped singing and dancing, to Mei’s disappointment.
“Jashar!” Valorum hurried over and his son stood to meet him. The chancellor of the Republic seemed nothing of the sort as he grabbed Jashar into a crushing hug and spun him around once, catching everyone off guard.
The older son tried to take it in stride though. “Good to see you too, Dad,” he laughed.
Finally the elder Valorum looked a bit abashed. So far his behavior had not struck him as odd or excessive. Until now. But he shrugged it off quickly.
“I’m just so glad to see you.” He stepped back a bit and turned to glance at Dellan. “Both of you here. And safe…no injuries this time. You’re home to visit now, not recover.” He blinked and tried to dab discreetly at a corner of one eye, while making a large circle with the other hand as a distraction. “Three down and one to go!” he called out.
Mei laughed and turned her attention back to the chair overflowing with gifts. “No wonder you were so late. Did you buy out Coruscant? Finis…” She didn’t know what to say. He usually wasn’t so extravagant.
He shrugged sheepishly. “Well…I couldn’t help it. There were so many great bargains!”
Tillia laughed at that declaration. She knew her father hadn’t been so very concerned with price. Everyone turned to look at her, and she realized her faux pas. Again she was acting immature and she quietly rebuked herself.
Finis seemed wounded rather than angry, and felt a need to defend himself. “It’s Winter Festival, and I don’t always get the chance to shop for my own family. Everyone is going to be here and I realized how little I had to give. It’s a special occasion for more than one reason.” The words fell out in a torrent then he stopped suddenly. Valorum reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a small package gaily wrapped in shimmering paper and ribbon. He crossed the short distance to Mei with a look of rapture. He went to one knee before her, offering her the box in two outstretched hands.
She looked more at Finis than at the box. He was that young colonel who had captured her heart. Of course he had always found a way to keep romance in their marriage, but tonight he was so very different. She felt excited without entirely understanding why. Her hands trembled slightly and involuntarily as she reached for the package. The only sound in the room was the crinkling of the wrapping paper as she shredded it away, letting it fall to the floor. Mei took in a deep breath before she opened the box. Finis was a man of discerning taste, and always sought advice on things he may not fully understand. Any jewelry he might gift her with was certain to be stunning. Inside the blue velvet box was a ring of iridescent stone that seemed to glimmer with its own inner light. It was surrounded by a circlet of pastel color gemstones, which perfectly matched the multi-colors from the stone in the center. She gasped, and was not surprised at the quality.
Finis took the box and gently placed the ring on her right hand. “Will you marry me?” he whispered in a tremulous voice.
Mei came to her knees before him and met him in a passionate kiss. The room was profoundly silent, but only for seconds longer. The children couldn’t contain themselves any longer. Whistles, catcalls and applause broke through the room.
Valorum helped his wife to her feet, wrapping an arm around her and grinning like a schoolboy with a crush.
“When did you get that?” Dellan asked in surprise. “We never separated.”
“I still have a few tricks to teach you,” his father said impishly. The three children hurried over to see the ring. “If you’ll excuse us, your mom and I have a few things to discuss.” He guided her out.
“Wait,” she stopped. “Supper. You three haven’t…”
“Yes, we have,” Finis told her. “While we were out. We had supper. I took care of it.” Then he gently pushed her to the hallway.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Tillia assured her. “It was better than junk food.”
The following night, Finis stood tall and solemn in the courtyard before the senate building. He wanted to be anywhere else on Coruscant, but here. The official Coruscant Winter Festival tree lighting was tonight. As supreme chancellor, nothing short of extreme emergency could justify his absence. However, with the current predicament hovering over his future and happiness like a dark cloud, Valorum felt little joy. He’d much rather have this time with his family instead of facing state functions. He sighed. There was no one he could blame but himself. No one had pushed him into chasing the chancellorship. Even if he wanted to point a finger at his father, who was the motivator for Finis’ political vocation, Valorum would not and could not. He’d been down that path so many times in his life, blaming his father for compelling him. After his father passed away, Finis finally settled within himself many things about his father. His father encouraged. He didn’t compel. Valeo Valorum had only seen potential in his son and encouraged Finis to live up to it.
Then he was yanked suddenly from his reverie. A band struck up the anthem of the Republic. The chancellor squared his shoulders as he was introduced to the waiting crowd by the chairman of the senate. Then he stepped up to the dais. Applause began and rippled through the crowd. In certain sectors of the multitude it died away more quickly, he noted without surprise. The temporary stage overflowed with greenery and late flowering shrubs which had been meticulously decorated by wives of senators from Finis’ coalition. Lights twinkled merrily, roughly half blinking on and off. All colors in the spectrum glimmered about him. The band was dressed in special uniforms reflecting the main holiday colors, green and yellow. To the left of the stage, a huge tree had been raised a week ago and decorated according to a very specific plan. Each planet in the Republic was represented by particular items on the tree. The ornament placement had to be planned with precise consultation with each senator, something Finis’ staff tended to with singular care. No senator wanted to be thought of as less because his planet’s adornment was at the bottom of the tree. Lower ornaments had to be accompanied by something to make it stand out especial, to compensate for the lack of height on the tree.
“Good evening.” He paused. His family was seated on the front row, smiling and discreetly waving. The sight of them, accompanied by his longing to be with them away from here, tugged at his heart. It was necessary to look away. “Thank you for joining me here this evening for the lighting of the holiday tree. This year’s theme is peace and brotherhood. Each handmade ornament presents that theme in a way that reflects the planet where it was made. And bringing all those decorations together on the tree in a united plan demonstrates our devotion to peace and brotherhood in the Republic.” Light applause gave approval and agreement. He decided to part from the prepared remarks that were on the cards in his hand, but fading fast from his mind. He wanted this over, no matter how festive and joyful the occasion. “I want to offer my sincere thanks for the craftspeople that assembled the wonderful ornaments and other decorations. Thank you to my staff for coordinating the decorating task. Thank you to the senators who brought the decorations and coordinated with the decorating committee. Enormous appreciation from me personally to each individual who contributed even a second of effort to this great event. To the reason we are here then. I asked only one indulgence this year. I am honored to have my entire family with me this season. My eldest daughter hasn’t arrived yet, but the others are here tonight. I invite them to come forward now and assist me in lighting the tree.”
Clearly he had not informed Mei of this. Her mouth fell open and her children looked at her in questioning surprise but she shrugged. “I didn’t know,” she responded. They made their way to the stage, a precisely dressed major offering a hand to Mei up the few steps and then to Tillia, much to her delight. To the pair of Colonels Valorum, he stood at attention and saluted smartly.
“Finis,” Mei said quietly as she came up beside him.
He didn’t respond. The idea had only occurred to him the day before, propelled by the continuing thoughts of his uncertain future. He was filled with emotion again and feared his voice would crack and tears would begin again. Instead he pulled her close and guided Tillia to the front. He indicated the switch to her and she pressed it, flushed with pleasure.
The tree, which was already a panoply of delight to the eye, exploded in a multitude of coruscating illumination, drawing gasps of appreciation from the on-looking crowd, which sprang into spontaneous applause. The band struck up a traditional holiday song.
I’ve done my duty. The next holiday event, the vice chancellor can fill in. Let him earn his pay. Finis leaned over and gave his wife a kiss.
Then there was a voice in his other ear. “You blew it, Chancellor. Bringing your family into it, especially at the last moment was a bum idea.” Valorum recognized the voice, the leader of the opposing coalition. “It’s been tradition for years to reward a senator for loyalty by letting his or her kid do this.”
Finis looked at him with cool blue eyes. He was smiling slightly. His anger overrode all other feelings. “This year I wanted to reward my family for their loyalty.” That’s it. I’m ditching as many other functions as I can. How to justify it? I’ll worry about that later. I don’t need these kinds of stresses...on top of what I’m already facing.
Finis found it hard to sit without fidgeting. His mind wouldn’t shut down. Some of that he didn’t mind though. It was keeping his mind from other things that he didn’t want to think on. There had been a very contentious debate on the senate floor this morning and he was still trying to weigh the issue fairly but also was kicking himself for not being more attentive to the legislation which he read the day before the debate, but not absorbed. He had been distracted while reading. And that’s just the sort of thing that you can’t let happen. As chancellor, you have to be properly informed, even if your private life is in a whirl. He tried to let that go for now. Saia was arriving on Coruscant today, now. He checked his chrono. Well, in a few more minutes…but essentially now. And he wouldn’t be there to greet her, just as he hadn’t been immediately available to greet Jashar or Dellan at their arrivals. However, he wouldn’t miss this even to pick up his daughter from the space port. He stood and began pacing the small room. Finis knew he’d have to wait, but waiting was intolerable when he had to continue to wait to find out if he had a serious health problem, or something simpler.
Waiting in this little cube for the scan to take place was maddening. He felt as if he were locked into a jail cell. His cell was the hospital’s schedule on which he had to wait. His jailer was the doctor who would give him the results, for he would not be free until he knew the answer. The comparison was apt he felt, but unfair, particularly to the doctor. Doctor Poul Monary didn’t want to put him through such misery. He’d always been a great physician over the years. Finis was just turning to complete another short circuit of the room when he chastised himself for comparing the physician to a jailer.
“Can’t help it,” he muttered. “It still feels like that.”
The door opened and a young man entered, wearing a lab coat and carrying a data pad, which he was studying closely. Without looking up he said, “Chancellor Valorum.”
“Yes.” Finis responded more quickly than he intended. Still he stood and waited, saying nothing more.
The man looked at him and smiled a bit. “I’m going to do your scan today. I apologize for the wait. We are a bit behind today.”
“I understand about schedules and keeping them.” And he did, still it seemed a trite thing to say. He forced a smile.
“If you’ll come with me.” He exited and the chancellor fell into step behind.
“It’s been very interesting work,” Saia was saying. She had slimmed down significantly since she’d last been on Coruscant and was sporting a shorter and more fashionable hair style. She seemed happier in all ways, and that had pleased Mei. Her new job seemed to fit her abilities well, according to how she had told the story, and it seemed likely since she was a more relaxed and less cranky person.
“That’s great,” Jashar responded. “Do you feel like you’ve found yourself now?”
She laughed. “Don’t be silly, little brother.” Saia was the eldest, which she never let them forget even now. “I didn’t need to find myself. I’m not a child. “I simply had to find what was right for me at this point in my life.” She paused and shrugged. “What I was doing before just wasn’t the right thing.”
“I can understand that,” Dellan added. “Been there, done that, and it wasn’t fun until I got into the current squadron. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a situation that doesn’t fit.”
“I do too,” Tillia said matter-of-factly as she leaned back in the chair she was sitting in and crossed her legs, properly as a young lady should. She was finally overcoming the habit of resting a foot on her opposite knee, the way her father and brothers sat. Even as a young lady, she still looked like little Tillia to her siblings, especially in the overstuffed chair. No one laughed at her, but it did take a bit of effort.
“You do?” Saia answered in an equal tone.
“Yeah.” She nodded her head. “I am stuck as a listener in most of these conversations,” she responded pleasantly, folding her hands over her knees.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you out,” Saia replied sincerely, but with merry brown eyes.
“Well, you all have and I wanted to say that I’m happy for you too. You’re different…in a good way and that’s great.”
Mei smiled. She couldn’t quite tell if the remark was sincere or sarcastic, but as long as the conversation continued civilly, she saw no reason to intervene. She reminded herself that she continued to forget how old Tillia was now. She was certainly acting more mature, though Tillia had been behaving above her age for years now, the result of being a very late addition to the family and growing up with adult siblings.
“Where’s Dad?” Saia asked suddenly, looking at the old fashioned chrono on the wallpapered wall. There were many such ornaments, gifts which belonged to the Republic, but were loaned to Valorum as long as he was chancellor. “You said he’d be home long ago.”
“Well, that was what he told me,” Mei answered. “Perhaps he got caught in a meeting. I’ll call Myar and ask.”
“He continues his anomalous behavior,” Dellan said quietly to Jashar, seated next to him on the flowered sofa.
“What?” Saia asked, leaning their direction.
“Shh!” Tillia hissed at them. “Wait until Mom is further away.”
“What is going on?” the older girl demanded, looking around at her brothers and sister.
“Nothing much,” Tillia said carelessly. “Just Dad being weird, that’s all,” she finished as she inspected her fingernails, thinking her disinterested behavior made her seem older.
Jashar leaned forward. “It’s nothing,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Dad has been behaving in ways we aren’t used to, but I think some of us are over reacting.” His eyes cut both directions as he completed the thought. “He said he’s just so happy we are all going to be here this Winter Festival, and Mom said he’s been distracted by work.” He held out a hand palm up. “So…”
“Yes,” Dellan put in a whisper, “but Dad can be like a block of ice too. He’s learned that pose over all the years of dealing with COs and with politicians. That’s why I think there’s something else up.”
Slowly they all turned to look at Tillia. She was, at once, nervous, uncrossed her legs and leaned forward in the chair. “What?” she squeaked out.
“You’ve been here longer than we have,” Jashar said with a bit of an evil grin. “What’s been going on?
Mei couldn’t believe it. She was speechless. Yet she had a flashback to young Colonel Valorum again. This was something he would do, not Supreme Chancellor Valorum. His driver stood alongside him, letting the man lean on his arm. He looked sheepish and wouldn’t meet Mei’s eyes. Finis was his boss, but Mei could be a hell cat when it came to the interests of her husband. He knew that clearly and didn’t want to tangle with her, particularly at the end of a trying day.
“He’s been where?” she asked. She had clearly heard what the driver had said, but she couldn’t believe it.
He cleared his throat. “Ah…for a drink,” he said quietly. The man stood exceptionally still and tall in his navy blue uniform. He would rather not tangle with Mei, but he would not back down from the confrontation. The supreme chancellor was his boss, but the driver was no serf.
“For several, I would say.” Her frown deepened. “You took him out in public to be seen drinking like that?” Her voice dripped danger. He knew to tread carefully.
“No, ma’am.” Of course not. But he didn’t dare add that since he wasn’t certain if she would take it as sarcasm or not. “Never,” he defended himself. “He didn’t go anywhere. I brought…” he paused and lightly coughed. “That is, the chancellor directed me to bring…”
“I know,” Mei responded calmly but displeased nonetheless. “You were just doing what you’d been told to do.”
“And I brought it to him. At his office. He sat in the room adjacent and drank.”
“All of it?”
“No, ma’am.” He produced the half full bottle as demonstration of his claim, forward thinking on his part.
“I’ll take that.” She looked at Finis, surprised that he’d said nothing. “And you. What have you to say for yourself? You should be answering the questions, or at least defending your compatriot.”
He smiled. “I have nothing to say for myself.” He looked at the driver. “And Jahr is doing quite well for himself.” He nodded at the man, still grinning. “Still…I guess I shouldn’t put him through that. Winter Festival bonus for you!”
“Thank you, Chancellor,” the man allowed a small smile and the pair exchanged a knowing look.
“Thank you, Jahr,” Mei told the man. “I’m sorry if I’ve been hard on you. You didn’t deserve it. Thank you for looking after him…as you always do,” she acknowledged. She moved in next to Finis so he could lean on her. “Good night,” she finished quietly.
Jahr was gracious. She did apologize, after all. He gave a short bow. “Good night.”
Finis didn’t need help getting down the hallway. He was in fine control of himself. Mei was glad that he hadn’t gotten completely drunk, but of course she wondered what triggered this. Finis hadn’t done this in years. He rarely had more than one drink, even at home. He pulled her close but she turned away. Mei wanted to get him to the bedroom. Everyone else was asleep and she preferred not to wake them to see this.
He walked over to the bed and lay down, kicking his shoes off. She came and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Finis, what’s wrong? What made you do this?”
His smile melted. He wasn’t inebriated. He hadn’t even drunk half the bottle. Jahr had a bit himself, something neither of them hoped Mei ever found out. It was at Finis’ insistence, and Jahr did keep in mind whom his passenger would be. He couldn’t afford to be in any accident, especially with the supreme chancellor of the Republic as his passenger. He poured half his drink into a half-dead potted shrub. But only half of it. It had been a trying day for him.
Finis had not gotten bad news. He hadn’t gotten much news at all, in fact. The results of the scan were not entirely conclusive and Dr. Monary wanted to perform a biopsy. What had driven Finis to seek his previous form of stress relief? He had waited several days, keeping the news of the mass to himself, sparing his family, and working hard to enjoy each day with them, appreciating them and trying to let them know they were loved. Also he’d had to hide it from everyone else in his life, friends because they might leak it to Mei, and colleagues, because they might use it against him, and also because Mei might find out in an indirect way. It was only more stressful each day. Tillia, with her precociousness, was the only one who had become suspicious of her father. Everyone else took him at his word, apparently. At least no one else had asked him what Tillia boldly did. Just this morning, as she was about to leave for school, Tillia spotted him alone in his bedroom as he was putting his shoes on. She looked up and down the corridor and hurried in.
“Daddy, are you going to die?”
If he had to pick one thing, out of the several, that pushed him to this, he would have put his finger on that one sentence. It was the single thing he feared the most and yet he’d never even put that sentence together in his mind. The concept played always at the edge of his thoughts, but he’d never put words to it, and she did. He nearly broke down, and yet he couldn’t. Not then and not before his daughter.
“Of course not,” he laughed and it sounded like anything but a laugh. And she had looked oddly at him for that too. “What makes you ask such a question?” he asked through a tightening throat. Immediately he’d stood from the bed, took her hand and walked out, toward the kitchen, changing the subject.
The memory came as close to making him break down as the event itself. Finis rolled onto his back and rubbed his face with his hands. With something to muffle his voice, he dared to respond. “Just so many things going on, Mei. It’s hard to explain. You’d have to be in on it to understand.” That was nice and vague. “After all, I only had a couple of drinks.”
“So why are you playing up the part? I know you’re not drunk. Why are you tottering around like the town drunk…and letting your driver take the blame?”
Well, maybe he had more than a couple. His thinking was slowed some, as demonstrated by all his miscues. Now he didn’t know what to say, fearing he would dig the hole deeper underneath his own feet.
Mei drew close to him and put a hand on his chest. “I don’t understand what is happening, but I don’t want to put pressure on you. I am worried about you. That is why I am pushing for answers. I will let it go though, if you want me to.” She paused. “I just want to know that you’re all right.”
He drew in a deep breath, thinking carefully of his response. “Mei, if I find out that I’m not okay, you’d be the first to know. Until I tell you otherwise, I’m okay. I just…need a break from some of the stress.”
She lay down next to him and put her head on his chest. She felt assured. And Finis felt like a cad for that.
“I don’t care,” Finis growled into the comm unit. “You are the vice chancellor, and you are just as capable of doing this as I am.”
The vice chancellor had been called many names out of his hearing, and some in his hearing. The most common in both cases were weak and effeminate. Vice Chancellor Armst was not the most capable man, but had brought important influence with him. In general, Valorum treated him carefully. However, in tense times, he let all walls fall and intimidated the man, which was easy and simple.
“But Chancellor,” Armst began slowly and hesitantly, “your absence from such a high level state dinner will be quite noticeable.” He paused, wondering why Valorum was choosing to pass up such a significant event. “Why…well…that is, what can I say that will pacify everyone and not cause gossip?” He paused briefly. “That is…I believe you wish to stem it. This would cause…”
Valorum leaned closer to the unit and spoke firmly. He was tired of being interrogated by everyone around him these days. At work, at home, it didn’t matter. He faced questions at every turn and his resources for dealing with them and holding up his deception were wearing him down. “Listen, Armst. Frankly, I don’t care what you tell them. You could tell them that I’ve taken up rock climbing and have gone to Telleran to climb the peaks, for all I care. But since you can’t seem to make a decision, I’ll give you the words. Do you have a stylus?” He waited.
When Armst finally realized an answer was expected, he stuttered out, “Uh…well…yes. I do…have a stylus…Chancellor.”
“Write this down. The chancellor has laryngitis and is feeling under the weather. He knows you will, under the circumstance, excuse his absence, and will welcome me with the same hospitality which you would extend to him. Have you got that, Armst?”
“Uh…yes,” he murmured. Just a little longer. You only have to endure a little longer and then you can go back to the university…where you are appreciated.
“Good.” Finis leaned back and tried to regain his calm. “Have a nice dinner.” He punched the comm unit off.
“You didn’t tell Mei?” Dr. Monary said in disbelief to the comm unit. “Please don’t tell me that you are going to have the biopsy behind her back.”
“Look, Poul. Let me handle this my own way. I hear you and I hear your disapproval.” Finis glanced to make sure no one in his family was close enough to hear him. “You said that it was simple and wouldn’t take long. When I know what to tell her, then I’ll tell her. Okay?”
The man was silent a long moment. He knew it would do no good to argue. One thing he’d learned about Finis Valorum is that when he made up his mind, there was no changing it. No one in the galaxy could convince him to tell Mei now that he’d decided.
“Okay, Finis. We’ll do it your way…mostly because I’m afraid that if I don’t cooperate, you’ll find someone else who will go along with your every whim. I’ll schedule it for the first day of next week.”
“Great. Thank you.” He hesitated. “Will I know for certain…after this?”
“Yes, we will have a definitive answer after the biopsy.”
“Give me a good Winter Festival gift, Poul.”
“Finis…I can’t promise anything. Have a good weekend.”
He quickly put away his portable comm unit and hurried back into the living room. Finis had taken the last day off from the work week. Today was the day to decorate for the holiday and he wasn’t going to miss this for any meeting or put-off politician. It was easy to put all that out of his mind. It was exceedingly difficult to put other things out of his mind, particularly since he tied that so closely with the holiday and being with his family. Still he was determined to make it through this day without giving his family reason to be any more suspicious than they may already be. Especially Tillia. He made a mental note to deliberately ignore her a bit to try to get the thought from her head that he was giving her extra attention because something bad was going to happen.
Mei glanced at him as he came in. “Call from your office?” she asked off-handedly.
“I told Myar not to call me unless it was of the utmost urgency…like Coruscant exploding,” he grinned. And he had told her that before he left the office the day before. Still skating on the edge of honesty. How am I going to explain withholding all this from Mei? Either way it will come out…and then… Have I destroyed the bond of trust between us yet? Is it salvageable?
“Hey, look out!” Dellan called out to his brother.
“Sorry. This tree is heavy. Give me a hand instead of yelling at me.”
Finis wasn’t certain if the old brotherly rivalries would kick in or not and he didn’t wait to see. “Here, let me help.”
Traditional Winter Festival celebrations included a tree from Coruscant’s moon, Sertes. The cost of such a tree was the fee to plant a new seedling in its place, to ensure the forest was not left barren. Also the number of trees allowed to be taken was strictly limited, for the same reason. Finis hadn’t had an authentic tree in a few years now, using an artificial one instead. This year’s celebration, being so special, screamed for a living tree, and Finis had to look around to find someone in the senate willing to part with his allotment, and depart with it without wanting a political favor in trade. The confirmation that all his children would be home came late, so, of course, did his search for a tree. Still, he had finally been able to find someone who didn’t want to use the trade politically, and inside he promised himself to look for a way to repay the kindness, preferably not politically.
With the three men working the task, the tree was mounted and raised quickly. It did seem stereotypical for the men to see to the task, still it was tradition as well, and no one minded.
The trio stood back to admire their work. The tree’s scent wafted through the room, mixing with the holiday scents that Mei had so carefully chosen and orchestrated. She breathed in deeply and immediately was transported back to years when the eldest children were quite young. Finis must have had the same sensation. He put an arm around her and he seemed misty.
Indeed the scents had made it through his distraction with righting the tree, but the sight of the tree and the familiar smells touched him the raw place in his soul where his deceit and knowledge of the thing in his lung lay. He fought for control, trying to decide whether to bail out for a quick restroom visit.
“It’s not straight,” Saia announced. She hadn’t overcome all her old habits yet and her critical nature was blunted none by the holiday atmosphere.
“It’s fine,” Mei overruled. It wasn’t perfectly straight, but what tree grew straight up? She was content.
“You’re right,” Dellan agreed. “It’s not. Just a minute. I’ve got it.” He got down on all fours and slithered under the tree, adjusting the mounting stand. However, he took it the wrong way, and the tree began to fall in his direction. He had sudden recall of similar accidents with his father and the holiday tree in the past. “Uh oh…”
Finis and Dellan ran forward to catch it. They righted it and Dellan made it fast in the mounting stand.
“Let’s leave it that way…even if it’s not perfect,” Finis declared. “It’s not worth injury.”
“It’s fine,” Mei assured him and Saia nodded agreement, feeling a bit uneasy since she was the one who had caused the near accident. Her father walked over and put an arm around her, not mentioning the incident.
“Well, now that we men have put it up, are you women ready to decorate?” He grinned and began to turn away. “Come on, guys. Now we get to put our feet up and watch.”
“And supervise,” Dellan added with twinkling blue eyes.
“Yes?” Mei responded as she handed her husband a pack of lights for the tree. “Think again.”
Not missing a beat, he took the box. “See? They know that we can do it better and more efficiently,” he winked.
“How can you stand him?” Saia asked her mother.
“Like this.” She dumped a box of glimmering strands of decorating material over his head.
“Ah! Winch!” He turned and grabbed Mei in a gentle but snug embrace, dropping silvery strands everywhere.
“Let’s decorate Daddy!” Tillia called out gleefully.
Jashar was laughing as hard as anyone, but he couldn’t resist an opportunity to join in the teasing. He put his hands on hips and said in as a severe a tone as he could conjure up while laughing, “If you want this tree decorated in time for the holiday, we’d better get serious.” He was rewarded with a pillow to the head. Tillia was grinning big.
“Why you little squirt…”
“No!” she squealed as Jashar ran toward her. “No! And don’t call me…” But she never got the last word out before he grabbed her up in his arms and turned her upside down.
“Apologize! Or else!” But his laughter assured her no harm would come.
“No! You deserved it!” she responded.
“Let’s plunge her into a bowl of whipped cream!” Saia suggested. “Like you did to Dellan once.” The family repartee was moving her to mischief if not to full holiday spirit.
“Oh no,” Mei intervened. “No, you don’t! And no launching her into hyperspace either!”
Jashar righted Tillia and her initial unease was replaced by curiosity. “What do you mean, Mom?” she asked. “About launching into hyperspace?”
Mei considered whether to tell it, but she had brought it up. “Saia and Jashar used to lie on their back on one bed with their feet straight up. Dellan would lie across their feet and they would try to toss him on the other bed.”
She giggled at the image that came into her head; her so very adult siblings doing such things. “Did it work?”
“Only about half the time,” Dellan responded.
“Did they really dunk you in whipped cream?” He nodded slowly. “And you let them live after all this?” she asked with a laugh.
“They let me live.”
Decorating had taken significantly longer because the Valorums wanted to garnish more than usual due to the specialness of this Winter Festival. However, the continuing high jinks while decorating was the major contributing factor to the lengthening of the time. No one minded though, for the most part, anyway. Now and then the teasing would become a bit too intense and tempers threatened to boil over, but someone not involved managed to calm the combatants and the day had been more argument-free than any of them would have guessed. The Valorums lingered over a late lunch, full and tired, and conversation lagged. Though it was still full daylight outside, the light didn’t always filter into their penthouse, due to the multitude of skyscrapers on Coruscant. Mei was still immersed in holiday spirit and had scattered candles around the room and table. Inspired, her children had scattered a few decorations on the table, majoring on old ornaments they’d made as youngsters. Their mother kept them as mementoes. Her children used them as embarrassment to each other. It had started when Dellan had found, packed carefully in soft fleecy material, the first ornament that Jashar had ever made. He’d brought it and planted it in the center of the table, chuckling deeply at the sad looking thing. That had motivated the elder brother to go in search of one of Dellan’s attempts. Thus the table was filled with what the children made fun of and what Mei looked at with fondness and nostalgia.
But the ensuing lag only allowed Finis’ mind to wander back to what he’d been able to let go most of the morning. For once he had been able to enjoy the time with his family without becoming so emotional. Probably all the activity and fun, he thought with a sigh. He glanced around the table. The lunch sat heavily on everyone and they all slumped in their chairs, fading toward sleep.
If he could sleep, then Finis would welcome the escape for a brief time. However, just as at night, his mind played with that which he would rather leave untouched. He wasn’t sleepy. And he didn’t want everyone to slip into a nap and leave him alone with his thoughts.
“Hey!” he called out. “What is this? Sleeping on duty? Insubordination!” He stood quickly. “Have you finished that decorating detail?” Slowly the members of his family sat up and opened their sagging eyelids, looking at him with curiosity and slight amusement. “I asked…did you finish that decorating detail!” he belted out in his best CO authority tone.
“No sir!” Tillia was on her feet and at attention. One thing that growing up would never rid her of was her fondness of encouraging her dad when he was like this. She was his junior soldier, and longed to be like her brothers. It was one of her favorite routines with her dad, and a good way to get his attention, by responding when he began.
“Then what are you doing still at mess? You’re over your time allotment, by almost double. I expect this to be finished by 1400 hours!”
“Sir, yes sir,” she snapped out as she saluted. Then she looked around at her family. “You heard the colonel. To it! Come on,” she clapped her hands together as everyone roused themselves and began to slowly vacate the table. “Move it!” she demanded.
Dellan grinned at his sister’s behavior and indulged her by picking up his pace. Jashar shrugged and fell in behind.
Saia began to say something snide to her mother about this display. In her teenage and young adult years when she was at her most rebellious, Saia opposed her father on everything. She never went along with his mock military drills. In fact, they always caused her to be slow and uncooperative, while her brothers reacted as Tillia did now. However, she was not just different from that time of her life. She was entering another new phase and changing, and she wanted that distinction to carry through to her relationship with her parents. She knew that playing along right now might make her feel like a sell-out, but in reality it would cost nothing, and might help close the gap between her and her family. She shrugged and fell in behind her brothers as they trotted back to the living room.
Finis stood and stared in wide eyed amazement. Mei smiled.
“What’s left?” Jashar said as he looked around the room, decorated and twinkling, but also strewn with boxes which were mostly empty, short of packing material. The juxtaposition of ordered decoration with scattered boxes and foam and paper and batting only intensified the holiday feeling. It was so typical of their decorating days. Jashar paused and took it all in, also drawing a breath.
“The mantle,” Tillia directed. “There’s nothing on it. Nothing holiday-ish,” she added.
“Then we’d better get a chair for you,” he grinned.
“Not anymore.” She allowed her little girl side to peek out again and stuck her tongue out.
“What do you usually put on the mantle?” Dellan asked his parents, smiling but otherwise ignoring the battle across the room.
“Not much…anymore,” Mei responded. “Is there anything left to decorate with?”
Saia spoke up. “Let us finish this. We’ll look through the boxes, and begin to put them away. Whatever we find, we’ll put out, and put all the decoration boxes away.”
“Thank you,” Mei responded warmly. “I am a bit tired. All that bending and stretching, all morning long, is a bit more exercise than I am used to. How about you?” she asked her husband.
He wasn’t ready to admit it right now. Feeling his mortality so much in recent days made him rebel against that. “I’m ready for more,” he insisted.
“Let this be part of our gift to you,” Saia told him. And he couldn’t turn her down, not when things were going so much more smoothly between them. He smiled and kissed her forehead.
Mei and Finis settled in the center of the sofa and watched their children make order of the chaos. Mei squeezed his hand tightly, and he felt all those sad feelings coming back. However, by coincidence, Tillia rescued him.
“Daddy, while we do this, entertain us. Tell us about how Winter Festival started.”
“Yes,” Saia agreed. “Tell us the story just like you did when we were kids.”
Her father’s eyebrows went up at that. “I didn’t know you had enjoyed it then.”
She looked sheepish and shrugged a little. “Well, I did. I guess I was too hardheaded to let you know,” she admitted.
He nodded once, acknowledging the confession but not commenting on it. Why make a problem when one didn’t exist? Still he was touched to know she really had enjoyed his attempts to make the holiday special for his children.
“Okay,” Finis said. “But first, let’s set the atmosphere. He dimmed the overhead lights so that the tree lights seemed to twinkle more brightly. Satisfied, he returned to the sofa and paused to think, but the story came readily to him. He had told it so many times, first to Saia, Jashar and Dellan, and then the second round had begun when Tillia came along so much later than the first children. He cleared his throat. “It was a very cold night. The sky was clear and the stars shined bright on the small town. Coruscant was very different in those days. It was more like other planets, with towns scattered across it, rather than being one big city…”
Finis woke suddenly, and what awakened him filled him with anxiety. He lay still, hoping it would go away. However, the pain in his lower chest burned and didn’t stop. Carefully, for the sake of the ache, and slowly, for the sake of not waking Mei, he sat up on the side of the bed, putting a hand to his chest. Immediately he thought of the mass that Dr. Monary had found. It was in the right lung, and the pain was on the right side. He drew in a short breath and terrible thoughts filled his mind.
No. It can’t be. So quickly after finding it? And my checkup was on time. It can’t have been there long. Is it really that serious to get bad so quickly?
He stood and looked back to see if Mei had waked. She was still breathing steadily and deeply and hadn’t moved at all. He left the bedroom.
“No, Finis, I don’t think it’s related to what we found on the scan,” Monary yawned into his comm unit. It was about three in the morning. However, Valorum was not just a patient. Over the many years he had become friend too, and he had told Finis to call him if he needed anything. “Excuse me,” he apologized. “But from how you describe this pain, I don’t think it’s due to that…even if this turned out to be cancerous. It also seems to me that you would have been feeling something before, not that it would suddenly be there at the level you describe. Let me ask you a question, Finis. Does it get worse if you move around? If you raise your arm or stretch it out?”
“I don’t know,” the chancellor responded. He began doing just those actions. “Yes,” he said suddenly, thinking the finding significant.
“How about the other arm? If you move it around, do you have pain on the left side?”
Valorum hadn’t thought of that at all. He stretched his arm overhead. “Yes. The same.” He was puzzled. “You don’t think it’s spreading that fast, do you?”
“No, Finis,” Monary said patiently. “I think you simply have sore muscles. You said, in recapping all you’d felt during the day, that you spent all morning decorating. Even if you do exercise, you don’t usually spend so many hours at it, right? And I’ll bet you did some moves that you aren’t used to.”
Finis thought of the falling tree that he and Jashar had stopped. Not terribly heavy, but he had moved very suddenly and caught the weight.
“What about your legs? Pain there?”
Valorum stood and walked a bit, bending his knees and stretching. He began to feel foolish.
“When you woke, were you laying on your right side?”
“Uh…yes.” And he thought of the cramped position in which he’d been lying.
“I think you just need a hot shower and a good night’s sleep. I think we can both use that.”
“I’m really sorry, Poul. I feel like a damned fool.”
“Don’t. I’d rather know what’s really happening with you. Usually it’s very hard to get information from you,” Poul smiled. “But…if this pain gets worse, call me tomorrow. Okay? Don’t hesitate. I could always be mistaken. Don’t be overly anxious. Try to be objective, or you’ll think it’s worse when it isn’t. But, Finis, never hesitate to call if you have concerns. That’s why I’m here.”
“You have great patience, Poul.”
“Good night, Finis.”
As the doctor entered, Finis came to his feet at once. “Thanks, Poul. I know that I’m inconveniencing you but I appreciate your time…”
“Finis, you aren’t inconveniencing me. I always start this early in the morning. You didn’t know that while you’re still sleeping, I’m already in someone’s gut, did you?”
The chancellor fell silent for a couple of minutes. “No, I guess I didn’t.”
“I wanted to check with you on the pain you had over the weekend.”
Valorum looked sheepish. “It’s better. All the aches are better. You were right.”
“Good. I’m glad I was.” Monary patted his shoulder. “Now, I’ll let the nurse prep you. See you in a few.”
The doctor left, leaving Finis with his thoughts, which he had even more trouble controlling this morning. Now that he was on the verge of the answer that he wanted, he was more uneasy, not less, which he thought would be the case. He didn’t sit back down, willing the nurse to come in right away.
His racing mind turned to Mei. He swung between two concepts. How was he going to tell her if this was cancerous? What way could he break the news gently? There was no way; none he could think of. On the other hand if this turned out to be benign, how could he tell her of everything he’d done behind her back? What would she think? Would she ever forgive him? He wondered how he would react if the roles were reversed, and decided he’d rather have Mei whole and dishonest, and hoped she’d find that an acceptable trade on his side. Then a new thought hit him. Perhaps he didn’t have to tell her. If it was nothing, why shatter her world by admitting anything? She didn’t have to know he’d lied to her and hidden a big part of his life from her in the recent past. Then again, he thought of himself on the opposite side. His shoulders slumped. He knew he’d have to tell her. He didn’t think he could live with himself if he continued the deception past the terrible point it had already reached.
Valorum had no idea how long he was lost in the limbo of confusion. It seemed like it had been an eternity since Dr. Monary had left the room. Also, it seemed like seconds between that time and when the door opened again and a nurse entered.
She was an attractive young woman with a pleasant smile. “Good morning, Chancellor.”
As soon as Finis was again aware of the world, one thought crept up from the fog. “Results?” he asked, not knowing if anyone was in hearing range.
“It will be just a little longer, Chancellor.” A male dressed in green surgical garb was standing nearby. He was checking Valorum’s vitals, routine but efficient. “Just relax. You’ll be more awake in a few minutes. Doctor Monary will be in to talk to you soon.”
And by the time Monary entered the small cubicle, Valorum was very much awake. He was not entirely over the effects of the anesthetic, but much more aware. He rose on one elbow. “Poul?” He studied the man’s face for an answer.
Monary pulled up a stool and perched on it. He had a smile, and the chancellor hoped that meant good news. “The biopsy showed us that the mass is not cancerous.”
“Not cancerous?” Finis repeated, to be certain he heard reality and not what he wanted to hear.
“Not,” Poul repeated.
Valorum lowered himself and ran a hand over his face. “Not,” he repeated as relief flooded him. “Not.”
“But it still will need to be removed. There is some abnormal tissue, which in self defense, your body began to encase. It will continue to add to the mass. So we do need to remove it, but it’s simple surgery.”
Finis took in the news and it almost didn’t register in his relief. “Surgery?” Immediately and involuntarily his mind returned to the last time he was in a hospital, after the assassination attempt on him. “Surgery…but…”
Dr. Monary wasn’t going to be put off again. He’d been more than patient with his patient. “Yes, we need to remove it from your lung, but that will be day surgery. It’s located such that we can remove it without major invasive surgery. You’ll be home by the end of the day.” He paused. “Now, you’ll have to tell Mei.”
“Your bonus will be in your next check,” Finis told Jahr before he left the vehicle.
“My bonus? But…you already gave me my holiday bonus.”
Finis smiled. One of the things he so liked about Jahr was his honesty. He reached forward and lightly slapped the man on the shoulder. “This is not your holiday bonus. This is the bonus for helping me carry out my covert plans, and for taking flak from Mei…when I shouldn’t have put you in that situation.”
The man didn’t know what to say. It had all been uncomfortable for him, but he was glad he’d only had to face Mei once during this. Many interactions with her might have led to her tearing down his defenses and finding out what he was helping the chancellor hide. She was a master at that.
“I’m just glad that you don’t have cancer,” he finally responded. “That’s the best news of the day.”
“Indeed.” Valorum was smiling hugely. “Indeed it is. Thank you, Jahr.”
He was sore from the biopsy, but no other effects now. He’d been in the room adjacent to his office resting for part of the day. Jahr had been the designated person to accompany Valorum to the biopsy and escort him from the hospital. Even though Finis knew he’d have to tell Mei, he wanted to be completely over the anesthesia before he had to face that. He was ready now. He thought.
“Dad, what are you doing home so early?” Jashar looked at the chrono. “Did they let you out for good behavior?”
All the Valorums were in the living room, except Mei. Dellan, Saia, and Tillia were seated on the carpet playing a game. The holiday tree lights were the only ones on and the children sat close to the tree using its illumination. Candles burned also, providing light and new scents, but still deeply reminiscent of the holiday. Jashar had lost all his money and was watching the wrap up of the game.
“Where’s your mom?”
“Here I am,” Mei said as she came up behind him, wrapping her arms around him. At once, Finis lightly grabbed her arms before she could squeeze him. He guided her around front.
“What’s wrong?” she said as she looked into his face.
Finis had thought about how to handle this. He planned to take Mei aside and tell her only, without disturbing the rest of the family, or admitting to them his treason. But in the passion of the moment, he began, not able to hold it in any longer.
“I don’t have cancer,” he croaked out of a tight throat, tears welling in his eyes.
“What!” Mei said the first word that came into her mouth. “You…don’t…” She was silent for a couple of seconds as the children were all getting to their feet. “Why did you think… When…”
“Let’s sit down.” He led her toward the sofa. “First, let me apologize to you. And to you,” he looked around at his children. “I know you’ve been suspicious that something was wrong, and you were right to be. I didn’t want to deceive you, but I didn’t want you worried sick either. There is a mass in the right lung, but Dr. Monary did a biopsy this morning and it’s not cancer. It’s not cancer.”
All the information at once hit Mei like a ton of durasteel. She was quiet, but her face showed all the emotions she was feeling.
“I know. I’ve hurt you. I should have told you in the beginning. I can only say that I’m sorry and that I was wrong.” He paused, wondering what her reaction would be. “And I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me,” he finished quietly, looking down and definitely not feeling worthy of forgiveness.
“Finis…you…you…” She was still absorbing the information. Even in her angry disappointment, relief was the overruling feeling; relief that she wasn’t going to lose her husband. She threw herself into his arms. Their children joined them in a group hug.
No one said anything for a long moment.
Finally Mei said in a voice muffled by Finis’ jacket. “I love you…but…you make me so angry sometimes. I’m not mad. Yes, I am.” She paused, trying to sort it all out. And she let it all go for the moment. “I love you.”
“We all love you,” Tillia said, tears streaming down her face. “You didn’t lie to me.”
“No, darling, I didn’t.” But Finis knew he had to be honest, more than anything else right now. “But when I told you that, I didn’t know that was the case.”
“I don’t care. You’re not going to die.”
Finis was glad that some days had passed between his confession and the holiday. Everyone, especially Mei, had time to deal with their feelings and talk to Finis about it all. And he took every criticism without defense. He made promises, unsolicited, that he intended to keep without reservation. The joy of the reunions had been dampened by his deceit and he would never forgive himself for that, no matter how much his family said they had. None of them made mention of reparations but Valorum felt he had a huge debt to pay. He would never be able to repay it, he knew, and he realized that true love made such debts not just unpayable, but not owed. He didn’t deserve it and would never let himself forget it.
Now on the festival morning, he sat next to his wife, holding her close, while she drowsed on his shoulder. The children talked quietly as they admired each others’ presents and read instruction manuals and searched for batteries. The morning was a bit subdued, but absolutely a happy one. He could say nothing more than he’d already said and so he didn’t try. He could only go forward, and try harder to change his stubborn ways.
Finis squeezed Mei and put his head against hers. “I love you so much.”
“I have the best gift I could get, right next to me,” she responded.